Maggie Hartford encounters a poet who displays a rare gift for words – and mischief

Boy Scouts used to be told to ‘smile and whistle’ when faced with difficulties, and poet Brian Nisbet has certainly succeeded.

In 2007 he became ill with multiple systems atrophy (MSA), a life-limiting disease which affects manual dexterity. Hitherto a keen amateur musician, he turned to poetry as a creative outlet.

Scottish-born, he moved to the Cotswolds in 2010. I met him at a creative writing course at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education in Summertown. His writing was often laugh-out-loud funny, but with clever allusions and a thought-provoking kick.

Friends from Oxford and further afield have crowdfunded this collection.

My favourites include ‘Monsieur Defarge’: “It’s our boy’s birthday and my wife’s not here./She’s off down the Commune, probably a mere/birthday celebration skipped her mind. She’ll/be too caught up in storming the Bastille,/or tracking down the bourgeoisie.”

His love of fun does not prevent him from facing the savage inevitability of his illness head-on. ‘The Naming of Symptoms’, a reworking of a war poem by Henry Reed, was commended in the Mervyn Peake Awards last year: “Today we have naming of symptoms. Yesterday/we had new diagnosis and tomorrow morning/we will have what to do near the end.”

Just as moving are the simple lyrical love poems. As fellow poet Chrys Salt says: “Brian’s is the voice of a real poet who approaches his subject matter with wit, courage, intelligence and insight.”

He has been published in poetry journals, broadcast on Radio 3 and performed at the Edinburgh Festival, so could have taken a conventional route to bringing out his first collection. But prompted by rapidly deteriorating health he decided to self-publish. Backers include The Oxford Times writer Sylvia Vetta and Oxford poet Jenny Lewis, who calls him one of her “most urbane, talented and erudite” students.

His poetry has been set to music by composers including Torbjorn Hultmark, David Ward, John Kenny and Rachel Stott. In 2013 Brian and fellow writer Maureen Ross wrote seven poems in response to String Quartet No. 3 by Ronald Center.

The launch at 4pm today at Rewley House in Wellington Square, Oxford, features music as well as poetry. Poet and critic RV Bailey will read the work.

Now You Know
Brian Nisbet
B Nisbet Publications, £5, on sale at Rewley House reception and by post (add £2 p&p) from Brian’s 
wife, musician Emily White, via 
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